He’s had a remarkable career of extremes, a player who has accomplished far more than anyone could have ever expected while still leaving the impression that he hasn’t yet put it all together for a complete season.
Nelson Cruz signed with the Mets at age 17 in February 1998, a year and a half after he was eligible to sign out of the Dominican Republic. It wasn’t as if he was turning down offers and holding out for a monster signing bonus. The high school basketball player took a meager $15,000 from the Mets to give pro baseball a shot.
Two years later, he was traded to Oakland for journeyman infielder Jorge Velandia.
Four years after that, he was traded to Milwaukee with journeyman righthander Justin Lehr for journeyman infielder Keith Ginter.
Six years into his career, Cruz hadn’t appeared on Baseball America’s list of any season’s Top 30 Mets or A’s prospects.
Cruz was the Brewers’ number 14 prospect going into 2005 and number 8 going into 2006, but two-thirds of the way into that latter season he was sent to Texas as a chip-in from the seller’s end.
At age 26 he got his first real big league shot, but two months into the 2007 season the Rangers sent him to AAA Oklahoma, using up his final option.
He failed to make the squad out of camp in 2008, losing a battle with Jason Botts for the final bench spot on the roster, and was designated for assignment. Even though he’d hit a robust .302/.378/.528 in AAA in 2006 and put up a video game slash line of .352/.428/.698 in AAA in 2007, he slid through waivers untouched, and the Rangers outrighted him to Oklahoma several days into the 2008 season.
Texas brought him back to the big leagues after a Pacific Coast League MVP campaign (.342/.429/.695), and since that season-ending month in Arlington he’s been a .279/.342/.525 big league hitter, still a year and a quarter away from the first earned free agency of his career, which will arrive when he’s 33 years old.
Along the way, Cruz led the Rangers in home runs and slugging in his first full big league season (2009), logging the most outfield assists of any Ranger in 18 years and going to the All-Star Game.
The next year, he led the big leagues with five walkoffs, including a franchise-record three by way of the home run, set career highs in hits, doubles, and triples, and was top 10 in the American League in hitting, slugging, and OPS. He followed it with a .317/.349/.733 post-season, with 13 of his 19 hits going for extra bases, including six that left the park, one of which may be the most memorable home run in Texas Rangers history.
Last year, Cruz’s season numbers regressed across the board, but he was huge in July and August, and again in the ALCS against the Tigers, when he hit .364/.440/1.273, blasting the most homers (six) and driving in the most runs (13) by one player in any single post-season series in baseball history, and making That Throw, the outcome of which covers the 2012 Bound Edition.
Nobody has had more extra-base hits (21) in his first 26 career playoff games than Cruz. That number surpassed Lou Gehrig’s 18.
His .689 playoff slugging percentage is fourth highest of all time (100 plate appearances or more).
His 14 playoff homers are ninth most ever, and the most by any player in consecutive seasons.
But there are annual leg injuries. The Palmer-esque funks at the plate. The right field routes and decisions.
He’s an extreme high/low player, never demonstrated more so than last October, when his series against Detroit (the slug and the cannon) and his moment in St. Louis (no comment) could end up defining his career.
The Cruz highs and Cruz lows have surfaced in the less important Detroit series this weekend. He had the worst defensive inning any Rangers outfielder has had in a long time on Friday, seemingly hurting his back in the process, and then turned around last night and singled in the team’s first run on a broken-bat flare off Justin Verlander in the third inning and scored its second, in a 2-1 walkoff win.
But while the box score won’t reflect it, that big bat and that big arm which terrorized the Tigers 10 months ago were huge last night.
At least threat of the big bat, and the threat of the big arm.
Cruz led off the ninth off Brayan Villarreal, who had issued two walks in his previous 10 appearances (eight innings). He’d walked Josh Hamilton in the eighth, but coaxed an Elvis Andrus flyout before it and an Adrian Beltre 5-4-3 after it, giving Jim Leyland enough confidence to send him back out for the ninth.
While Villarreal wasn’t around last October, you can imagine what went on in the visitors’ clubhouse when the Tigers got to town Friday and game-planned the Texas lineup.
Cruz watched four pitches sail by, out of the zone, and didn’t offer at any of them. Maybe Villarreal just didn’t have it. But Leyland wasn’t concerned, and the memory of what Cruz did to Detroit in October – almost always late in the game – had to be fresh, no matter who was on the mound and how sharp he was.
The four-pitch sequence probably prompted Michael Young to go to the plate taking a strike, which never came, and the stage was set for Eric Nadel (on his night) to call Mike Olt’s heroics, which brought Cruz home from second, showing no signs of a weak back as a weak Andy Dirks throw from left fluttered toward the plate.
Dial back half an inning. While Olt’s single to left (his first big league pinch-hit appearance, and just his second as a pro at any level) capped off a brilliant at-bat and scored the run that ended the game, Delmon Young’s single to right in the top of the ninth didn’t plate a run, and again it was because of Cruz.
Game 4, ALCS, October 12, Comerica Park.
With one out, Miguel Cabrera walks, Victor Martinez singles him to third.
The next batter to face Mike Adams was Young. He lifts a fly to right field. Third base coach Gene Lamont sends Cabrera home.
Cruz guns him down.
(Cruz then draws a walk in the next inning, but that’s where the comparison ends – it wasn’t until the 11th that Cruz hit the three-run bomb that iced that Texas win.)
With one out, Cabrera walks. A Prince Fielder walk pushes him to second.
Adams is brought in to face Young.
Young shoots a single to right field.
Lamont doesn’t send Cabrera home.
Respect, and a sharp memory.
And a tie that was preserved going into the bottom of the ninth, which is when the game came to an end, with Cruz sliding home.
There was no big bomb or huge throw from Cruz that shows up in the game recaps this morning, but the threat of both played big.
Jairo Beras wasn’t in the stadium to see the game, but he was the night before – when Cruz made a rookie league attempt to dive for an uncatchable Austin Jackson shot that ended up going for an easy inside-the-park home run, and followed it by muffing a routine pop-up to shallow right, clutching his low back after both plays and coming out of the game when the inning ended.
Maybe it served as a souvenir for Beras, a reminder that baseball is a game of failure, even for a player like Cruz whose game Beras’s may very well resemble if it all comes together. Six hours earlier, four hours before first pitch, with Rod Stewart’s “Tonight’s the Night” blaring on the P.A. system, Beras took nearly 30 minutes of batting practice at Rangers Ballpark, and it wasn’t until the final pitch he saw that he cleared the fence. (Kid you not: Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” was playing.)
That’s not to say that the 17-year-old, using his idol Josh Hamilton’s 35-ounce bat, didn’t steadily hammer rifle shots to all fields off BP pitcher Dax Powell, producing triple-echo reports that bounced all over the building, over and over and over again, but you could tell from the sheepish smile toward the end of his session at the plate that he didn’t want to walk away until one of those shots left the park.
Cruz, who gives up a couple inches to Beras in height but outweighed him by more than 30 pounds when he signed his own age-17 contract, had 70 at-bats in his first pro season. He hit one home run.
Cruz had 205 at-bats in his second pro season. He hit one home run.
And he’s one of the most prolific post-season sluggers who has ever played the game.
Last night’s game was mostly about Derek Holland and Mike Olt, each of whom reached the big leagues and contributed at an age when Cruz hadn’t gotten out of Low Class A. Cruz was a $15,000 longshot, a toolshed player that offered enough for scouts to dream on that he kept getting traded, not because organizations were giving up on him so much as other franchises wanted the lottery ticket for themselves.
Beras signed for 300 times more than Cruz.
He’s not going to get traded three times before getting a real chance in the big leagues.
The hope is that once Beras starts to fill out – he still looks like a bag of bats right now, even though he’s already put on 17 pounds since signing – and starts to internalize the nuances of the game, the power is going to actualize in a great big, scary way, and that he’s going to get to the big leagues at a much younger age than Cruz did.
But it will take some time. It always does.
And just as we hope Beras ends up establishing himself in a historical context the way Cruz has, and that he helps Texas win October baseball games like Cruz enjoys doing, we have to accept that there will be bad routes and ill-advised dives and maybe lingering injuries and deep funks and a pervading sense of there’s-more-there-if-he-could-ever-put-it-all-together.
It’s going to a while before Beras starts making headlines on the field, but the big stories shouldn’t take our eyes off the smaller ones, like the one that played out in front of dozens four hours before the first pitch on Friday, or the one that featured Nelson Cruz on Saturday night, erasing the ugly memory of what had happened the night before even though it would never be characterized, as so many moments of Cruz’s career have been, both good and bad, as indelible.